While space agencies like NASA and the ESA research and develop methods for getting humanity deeper into space (i.e. ship advancements and planet habitability), a concrete solution for astronauts dealing with the effects of microgravity remains mostly nonexistent — until now, that is. For the better part of the last fifteen years, Dr. James Waldie of Australia’s RMIT University in Melbourne has worked on perfecting an innovative new skin-tight spacesuit reminiscent of what Olympic runners typically don during competition. In fact, it was after Waldie watched Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman win gold in 2000 that the idea struck him.
By focusing on vertical strength, the SkinSuit has the ability to more accurately imitate the gravity effect of walking on Earth.
Now, after years of development and slow progression, Waldie’s suit has finally undergone a real-life trial, making an recent appearance aboard the International Space Station. Dubbed the SkinSuit, European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen gave the revolutionary suit a spin during his time in space, and though the Danish engineer has since returned to Earth, he’s yet to publish his official findings. Waldie’s theory, however, is that the skin-tight suit will effectively reduce the debilitating effects of space flight, combating bone mass loss and spinal stretching.
“Given the impact of atrophy on astronauts in space, I wondered if a suit like the one worn by Freeman could fool the body into thinking it was on the ground rather than in space and, therefore, stay healthy,” says Waldie. “We believe if we can reduce spinal elongation in space, we can reduce the stress on the intervertebral discs.”
As previously mentioned, Waldie’s vision for outfitting astronauts in the SkinSuit has been an incredibly slow process. After toying with several iterations and designs of the suit, Waldie collaborated with groups from MIT, the European Space Agency, London’s King College, and leather jacket manufacturer Dainese to develop the prototype worn by Mogensen. Over the course of just two days, Mogensen recorded his height changes with and without the suit while also documenting changes in mobility and overall comfort.
“This was designated as an ‘operational and technical assessment,'” Dr. Waldie tells IFL Science. “This was just a short one to see if it is a viable garment. Two days is not enough to determine if there is any physiological advantage.”
Made from bidirectional elastic, the doctor admits the suit is incredibly strong vertically yet lacks strength horizontally. By focusing on vertical strength, the SkinSuit has the ability to more accurately imitate the gravity effect of walking on Earth. This design also allows the suit to gradually intensify the vertical load from an astronaut’s shoulders down to their feet.
As Waldie awaits Mogensen’s official report on the suit, the doctor intends to continue working on improving and upgrading the SkinSuit as well as an alternative skin-tight suit for use on space walks. Though no official date has been announced for further testing, if Mogensen’s assessment is even slightly favorable, future astronauts should expect to slip into these outfits on future missions.